Editing tips and tricks: Take nothing for granted

It’s easy, when you are copy editing, to get lulled into a sense that the words you are reading are as they should be. But the good editor’s motto is to take nothing for granted.

A recent article on the News24 website made my husband cross. 

The article, about a drowning in the Silvermine Dam in Cape Town, has this paragraph:

The dam is a popular site, especially in warm weather, for holding picnics and cooling off in crystal clear waters.

But Silvermine Dam famously does not have crystal clear waters. The water in the dam is in fact reddish in colour. As one tourism website explains:

You’ll find that the water here – like the dams on Table Mountain – is a rich, deep red. That’s because the water is dyed by the fynbos at the water’s edge and along the river route. They give it an almost bloody colour you’ll have to see for yourself!

The reasons a reputable news website like News24 might make such a mistake are many. It’s a national site and the person who compiled the story may not come from Cape Town. The same might apply to the person who edited it. And the way in which the death of journalism’s business model has stripped experience and institutional memory out of news publications is well-known.

This article is not to bemoan the dire state of journalism, though.

Rather, it’s to offer one of my best editing rules: take nothing for granted. Every single item in a text being edited needs to be scrutinised, checked and changed if need be.

That sounds incredibly time-consuming, but in fact there are a set of rules to follow that make life easier. Here are some of the the things I check in any text I am editing:

Gratuitous descriptions – like that “crystal clear”. My thought process goes like this: are the waters really crystal clear? Don’t know. Do I have time to check that? Probably not. Is the description needed in a news story about a tragic event? No. Then delete it without bothering to check it. Generally, delete all flowery language: this can be one of the biggest sources of mistakes.

If people’s names appear in the text, is each instance spelled the same? If yes, leave them alone (unless they look really odd). If not, do a quick Google search. This also applies to place names.

Do all the numbers add up? If it says R10 was spent on this, and R20 was spent on that, is that then explained as R30?

Does it say something is a first? First person to do anything at all? If there’s time, check it. If it’s not a first or you can’t pin it down properly, add a small phrase: “one of the first”. In a long editing career, that “first ever” is one of the things that people are most likely to claim, and one of the things that are most likely to be challenged by readers. A recent case in point: Australian cricket Glenn Maxwell recently hit 201 against Afghanistan in the Men’s T20 Cricket World Cup. It was reported like this by Al Jazeera:

When Glenn “on-no-legs” Maxwell clobbered Mujeeb-ur-Rahman for a six over deep midwicket to win the ICC Cricket World Cup match against Afghanistan and finish his innings on 201 runs not out, he etched his name in history books with the highest-ever one-day international (ODI) score by an Australian batter.

Turns out that’s not true. Cricket.com.au reports that one of Australia’s greatest ever cricketers, Belinda Clark,  hammered an unbeaten 229 in an ODI match against Denmark in 1997.

I rest my case. Take nothing for granted – not even cricket statistics.

READ: How to be a good editor – it’s all in the routine

Main picture of Silvermine Dam: Taken by Bernard DUPONT, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

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